Catholic World News

Bishop Conley at Harvard: pursue truth, reject false view of conscience

September 21, 2012

Speaking at Harvard University’s Catholic campus center, Bishop James Conley said that college students are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with relativism and encouraged his listeners to embrace Blessed John Henry Newman’s teaching on conscience rather than its “miserable counterfeit.”

“According to Newman, conscience must choose to embrace objective reality, which is not of our own making and is not up for a vote,” said Bishop Conley, a Denver auxiliary who was appointed Bishop of Lincoln on September 14 and will be installed on November 20. “Conscience has freedom so that it may give sincere assent to what is true. Such freedom is not given for us to embrace and follow whatever is to our liking.”

“Meanwhile, the ‘counterfeit’ idea of conscience – as having only rights, but no ultimate responsibilities – became the basis for our modern relativism,” he added. “In continuity with the attitude described by Newman, relativism envisions freedom of conscience simply as the right to think and act as one pleases – without any higher justification for doing so, and without any reference to the obligation to seek the truth.”

Noting that the dissatisfaction of some students with contemporary intellectual trends, the prelate said that “it's my hope that these intellectual seekers will discover Newman's teaching, that conscience has rights in order to fulfill its responsibilities, the highest of which is to know God and embrace his revelation.”

Bishop Conley--who in recent interviews has expressed strong admiration for Lincoln Bishops Glennon Flavin (1967-92) and Fabian Bruskewitz (1992-2012)--also distinguished the Catholic concept of tolerance from its counterfeit.

“There is a legitimate Catholic concept of tolerance, pioneered by Newman and taught by Vatican II, which holds that it is a duty ordinarily owed by those who know the truth, toward those who are in error,” he said. “They, too, enjoy a certain freedom of conscience – which exists so that they may freely discover and embrace objective truth.”

He added:

Relativism, meanwhile, tries to establish a similar-sounding notion of tolerance on a completely different basis. It says that freedom of conscience exists because the truth cannot be solidly established; there is simply a myriad of opinions, and one opinion has no right or superiority over another. All is to be tolerated because no one has access to any privileged position from which to judge. Who’s to say? …

Christian tolerance is fundamentally an orientation of love toward those in error, borne of an understanding that God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). I am called to imitate God's patience and mercy toward those who do not yet know him or accept his revelation. Relativistic tolerance, on the other hand, states that everything is to be tolerated precisely because truth cannot be ascertained.

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